Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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By Jimmy Santiago Baca
Grove, 240 pp., $23

The characters who inhabit this raw social realist novel are types who generally fly under the radar of American fiction. Poor Mexican teenagers Casimiro and Nopal brave the dangers and hardships of illicitly crossing the desert to toil in the chili fields on the US side of the border, an unstable life, as they discover, with dangers and hardships of its own.

Developed in flashbacks, the couple’s harrowing story is interspersed with a present-day narrative focused on their two sons, now in their 20s. The elder, Lorenzo, is a farm worker, like his parents before him, though he rises to become an overseer with an educated, politically engaged girlfriend and a lucrative side trade in marijuana. His brawny younger brother, Vito, becomes a prizefighter, and something of a folk hero, though he never forgets his obligation to his people.

This earthy if artless novel evokes the pain of the migrant’s life, the abjection and the violence, but also the vibrancy of the borderlands Chicano community. It would have been more successful had the author abstained from pontificating and instead allowed the story to make its own point, moral and all.

WHAT THE DOG SAW: And Other Adventures
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown, 432 pp., $27.99

For a competent writer, it isn’t difficult to interest some of the people some of the time. What makes Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Blink’’ and “Outliers,’’ so extraordinary is his ability to focus on any topic from the arcane to the apparently banal, research it with shrewd intelligence and wholehearted engagement, then weave in other thoughts and themes that may seem unrelated until he subtly illuminates their relevance. The result is unfailingly riveting.

Some of the essays in this collection are profiles, but with a wider compass than the term usually implies. For example, a piece on Dr. John Rock, inventor of the birth control pill, opens into a perceptive discussion of unintended consequences. Other essays counter-intuitively examine how we deal with evidence and theories. “Million-Dollar Murray,’’ a sympathetic portrait of a homeless man, challenges prevailing approaches to intractable social problems. Still other essays question our assumptions about events from 9/11 to the Enron collapse to the war in Iraq.

An essay about the marketing of Clairol, which turns into a sly social history of postwar America, started out, says Gladwell, as a piece on shampoo until a Madison Avenue type told him shampoo wasn’t interesting. With Gladwell at the keyboard, you wouldn’t want to bet on that.


By Elizabeth Beckwith
Harper, 256 pp., paperback, $14.99

If nothing else, this humorous take on the art and science of parenthood wins honors for the best title of the year, nonfiction division.

Parents who take the job seriously might scorn guidance offered by a stand-up comedian. But why should pediatricians and psychologists have the lucrative field to themselves? After all, fashions in child rearing wax and wane, and one generation’s expert advice is bound to sound crackpot to the next. Beckwith was raised in a large, loud, and loving Italian-American family in Las Vegas, of all wholesome places, and tongue-in-cheek though it may be, the autobiographical instruction she dishes out is not just comical but remarkably common-sensical. “This is about one thing,’’ she says of her parenting methodology, “not letting your child grow up to be [a jerk].’’ The goal is universal.

“Shame is your friend,’’ she declares, illustrating in mock-textbook style the many ways in which guile can be used to steer your children down the correct path in life without hypocrisy or haranguing. But first you must know who you are: excellent advice no matter who it comes from.

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